New York music doesn’t lack for good books. Nor does the history of 1970s New York. The intersection of these two subjects has been so worked over in the past ten years, it would seem any worthwhile new title would have to move on to fresher fields. So it’s utterly remarkable how Will Hermes’ book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber & Faber, 2011) has made NYC music circa 1973-77 seem quite fresh again. In so doing, the book joins the ranks of beloved titles on New York music like Please Kill MeCan’t Stop Won’t Stop and Love Saves the Day.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is such an enjoyable and engaging read in large part because of the particular methods used by Hermes, a long-time music journalist and Queens native:

First, Hermes pulls back from the usual focus on punk, hip hop, and disco for a wider angle on New York music of the era, giving equal attention to the city’s loft jazz, salsa, and avant-garde composers. Hermes also covers some unexpected musical figures, most notably Bruce Springsteen; Hermes’ account of how Springsteen’s E Street Band line-up and breakthrough albums came together in NYC puts a new twist on the Boss’s traditional association with New Jersey .

Second, Hermes sequences the many threads on various scenes and musicians are with a straightforward chronological sequence. Literally, Chapter 1 begins on January 1, 1973 (a New York Doll’s concert at the Mercer Arts Center), and Chapter 5 ends on December 31, 1977 (a gig by saxophonist David Murray at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club). Pre-1973 back stories are kept to a minimum, and then largely to motivate the NYC moment in question, not to illuminate particular biographies.

Third, he puncutates the five-year narrative with additional NYC events and backdrops. The reader will anticipate many of these; the NY Post’s “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline, the serial murders of Son of Sam, and the 1977 blackout are all here. However, Hermes has a native’s intuition for including lesser-known events that conveys an authentic slice of life:

        At the Emotional Outlet, a clothing store on Sixteenth Street off Seventh Avenue, a customer inexplicably punched a salesgirl in the face. And in October [1975], in a bizarre case of live imitating art imitating life, a burnout named Ray “Cat” Olsen held up the Bankers Trust on Sixth Avenue with a rilfe, taking hostages à la Al Pacino in the current hit film Dog Day AFternoon (itself based on a crazy New York City bank robberty from the summer of ’72). Declaring himself a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Olsend demanded the release of Patty Hearst, who’d just been arrested in San Francisco.
“On any night, the Grateful Dead are the best fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” Olsen told a live radio audience via phone over his favorite radio station, WNEW-FM, which fed his voice of the airwaves while his gun was trained on ten hostages. “I want to thank Jerry Garcia. I want to thank Phil Lesh . . . They have made me high over the years. I’m psychedelic.” He spoke with Scott Muni, who played Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mibole” for him and then went down to the bank to try to talk him down. The gunman was finally arrested after trading two hostages for a six-pack, and then passing out (pg. 148).

        New York was especially high-strung that spring and summer [of 1976]. This was partly due to the Great Dope Famine—or, as it was known in our neighborhood, simply the Drought. There was no weed to be had anywhere. It’s hard to remember, in these days of cell-phone-delivery-service characters who come to your apartment 24/7 with suitcases full of jewel-boxed hydroponic buds grown domestically, that in the ’70s quality marijuana had to be imported.
The Soho News ran a cover story about the weed famine in its Fourth of July Issue. “Stockbrokers ahve lost their radar,” Frank Lauria wrote. “Creative Directors can’t find the hook. Disc Jockeys are at a loss for words, and Television Executives can no longer sense the pulse of the public. Manhattan’s artistic turbine is sputtering lamely on stems and seeds . . . There is simply no grass to be had in fun city” (pg. 186).

Fourth, Hermes liberally adds his own story to the narrative. A middle-class white kid in Queens socially predisposed toward Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead, his life is changed by a 1976 Springsteen concert. Otherwise, “What was happening in Manhattan, I had no idea” (pg. 41). As suggested by the book’s title, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is Hermes’ opportunity to rectify the opportunities he missed to witness these musical flourishings at firsthand. Nonetheless, he effectively exploits his Queens positionality to illuminate the diffusion of multicultural fusions, subcultural styles, urban unrest, and generational change emanating out of the numbered-streets grid in Manhattan and the South Bronx:

At Goose Pond Park next to Jamaica High School in Queens, as the winter [of 1976-77] thawed, the white kids would sit on one side of the pond smoking cigarettes and joines while, across the way, the black kids with their boom boxes did the same. They’d blast WBLS, or cassette tapes of funk, disco, and fusion jams. Across the divide, all heads nodded to the beats (pg. 258).

Fifth, Hermes avoids letting these concurrent narratives merely accumulate by looking for the mutual influences and back-stage connections across the many scenes and musicians divided by idiom, milieu, and even language. Thus, we learn how David Byrne was at the 1976 Metropolitan Opera premiere of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein at the Beach, and how minimalist Rhys Chatham found his musical voice while attending a Ramones gig at CBGBs with his former roommate Arthur Russell.

These five formal methods yield a lot of material that Hermes skillfully develops into an exciting narrative that works best at the level of historical description. Not that the reader has to wade through dry, “objective” account—the following passage illustrate how Hermes’ personal voice drives the detailed and occasionally quantitative enumeration of facts:

And then there were the subways. Height similarities notwithstanding, [mayor Abraham] Beame was no Mussolini, and the trains did not run on time. Wild delays were the norm, and rarely announced. Trains were often shortened, meaning you might sprint down the stairs to find the train doors closing on the end car halfway down the platform. There were 2,971 purses snatched in the subways in ’76, 5 rapes, 5 homicides, 145 felonious assaults. Operating hours for booths were shortened, and lines long, so you had to stock up on tokens, fifty cents each. Stations stank of garbage. People smoked freely and flicked their butts onto the tracks; tunnel fires were common. The trains were old, maintenance was sketchy. At its best, graffiti actually helped more than hurt (pg. 228).

In recent interviews promoting the book, Hermes has been asked the predictable questions of why this musical explosion happened in New York City at this time, and he’s given some predictable answers: “cheap rent,” for instance. No doubt that’s a factor. Probably so, too, are the “melting pot culture” (pg. 24) and self-conscious “historical perspective” (pg. 140) that characterized NYC’s music scenes. But the analytical strength of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is precisely how it devotes little space for the author’s speculations. For one reason, Hermes adheres to the writer’s rule of “show don’t tell”; better to recount, for example, how Rashied Ali paid $200/month rent in 1973 to open his two-story jazz venue Ali’s Alley (“at 77 Greene Street, just off Spring”) than to pontificate about the generalized importance of cheap rent for music scenes.

But if I correctly detect from Love Goes to Buildings on Fire that Hermes is hedging his bets—that he betrays a self-doubt that he’s not well suited to enter into academic and planning debates about what’s more important, cheap rent or multiculturalism (or some other factor—I think cultural scholars can learn a lot from Hermes’ fidelity to more or less thick description. As ethnographer Howard Becker argues in Tricks of the Trade (University of Chicago Press, 1998):

Social scientists… ordinarily expect to be given such interpretations in what they read and to rely on them in what they write. They think of the details fo their work as the basis for generalizations, as samples whose interest lies in their generalizability, in the interpretations that explain what those details stand for. But perhaps these interpretations aren’t as necessary as we think. We can get a lot from simpler, less analyzed observations. The appropriate ratio of description to interpretation is a real problem every describer of the social world has to solve or come to terms with (pg. 79).

Look to Hermes’ inevitable citations in hundreds of future scholarly publications on this era in New York City (musical and otherwise) for proof of this book’s archival and methodological value. In the meantime, set aside a weekend or extended plane/train ride to acquaint yourself with its more immediate pleasures.